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Essay Shop: Free Software, Free Society

This is the second edition of Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman.
Free Software Foundation
51 Franklin Street, Fifth Floor
Boston, MA 02110-1335
Copyright © 2002, 2010 Free Software Foundation, Inc.

Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire book are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved. Permission is granted to copy and distribute translations of this book from the original English into another language provided the translation has been approved by the Free Software Foundation and the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

ISBN 978-0-9831592-0-9


Click on an individual chapter to to purchase it. You can get free, virtual money to buy articles on this page at the bank.


Every generation has its philosopher—a writer or an artist who captures the imagination of a time. Sometimes these philosophers are recognized as such; often it takes generations before the connection is made real. But recognized or not, a time gets marked by the people who speak its ideals, whether in the whisper of a poem, or the blast of a political movement. (Pay to read more...)

Preface to the Second Edition

The second edition of Free Software, Free Society holds updated versions of most of the essays from the first edition, as well as many new essays published since the first edition. (Pay to read more...)

1. The Free Software Definition

“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.” (Pay to read more...)

2. The GNU Project

When I started working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971, I became part of a software-sharing community that had existed for many years. Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking. But we did it more than most. (Pay to read more...)

3. The Initial Announcement of the GNU Operating System

This is the original announcement of the GNU Project, posted by Richard Stallman on 27 September 1983. (Pay to read more...)

4. The GNU Manifesto

The GNU Manifesto was written by Richard Stallman at the beginning of the GNU Project, to ask for participation and support. For the first few years, it was updated in minor ways to account for developments, but now it seems best to leave it unchanged as most people have seen it. (Pay to read more...)

5. Why Software Should Not Have Owners

Digital information technology contributes to the world by making it easier to copy and modify information. Computers promise to make this easier for all of us. (Pay to read more...)

6. Why Software Should Be Free

The existence of software inevitably raises the question of how decisions about its use should be made. For example, suppose one individual who has a copy of a program meets another who would like a copy. It is possible for them to copy the program; who should decide whether this is done? The individuals involved? Or another party, called the “owner”? (Pay to read more...)

7. Why Schools Should Exclusively Use Free Software

There are general reasons why all computer users should insist on free software: it gives users the freedom to control their own computers—with proprietary software, the computer does what the software owner wants it to do, not what the user wants it to do. Free software also gives users the freedom to cooperate with each other, to lead an upright life. These reasons apply to schools as they do to everyone. (Pay to read more...)

8. Releasing Free Software If You Work at a University

In the free software movement, we believe computer users should have the freedom to change and redistribute the software that they use. The “free” in “free software” refers to freedom: it means users have the freedom to run, modify and redistribute the software. Free software contributes to human knowledge, while nonfree software does not. Universities should therefore encourage free software for the sake of advancing human knowledge, just as they should encourage scientists and other scholars to publish their work. (Pay to read more...)

9. Why Free Software Needs Free Documentation

The biggest deficiency in free operating systems is not in the software—it is the lack of good free manuals that we can include in these systems. Many of our most important programs do not come with full manuals. Documentation is an essential part of any software package; when an important free software package does not come with a free manual, that is a major gap. We have many such gaps today. (Pay to read more...)

10. Selling Free Software

Many people believe that the spirit of the GNU Project is that you should not charge money for distributing copies of software, or that you should charge as little as possible—just enough to cover the cost. This is a misunderstanding. (Pay to read more...)

11. The Free Software Song

The lyrics of “The Free Software Song” are sung to the melody of the Bulgarian folk song “Sadi moma bela loza.” (Pay to read more...)

12. What’s in a Name?

Names convey meanings; our choice of names determines the meaning of what we say. An inappropriate name gives people the wrong idea. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet—but if you call it a pen, people will be rather disappointed when they try to write with it. And if you call pens “roses,” people may not realize what they are good for. If you call our operating system Linux, that conveys a mistaken idea of the system’s origin, history, and purpose. If you call it GNU/Linux, that conveys (though not in detail) an accurate idea. (Pay to read more...)

13. Categories of Free and Nonfree Software

Free software is software that comes with permission for anyone to use, copy, and/or distribute, either verbatim or with modifications, either gratis or for a fee. In particular, this means that source code must be available. “If it’s not source, it’s not software.” (Pay to read more...)

14. Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software

When we call software “free,” we mean that it respects the users’ essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of “free speech,” not “free beer.” (Pay to read more...)

15. Did You Say ``Intellectual Property''? It's a Seductive Mirage

It has become fashionable to toss copyright, patents, and trademarks—three separate and different entities involving three separate and different sets of laws—plus a dozen other laws into one pot and call it “intellectual property.” The distorting and confusing term did not become common by accident. Companies that gain from the confusion promoted it. The clearest way out of the confusion is to reject the term entirely. (Pay to read more...)

16. Words to Avoid (or Use with Care) Because They Are Loaded or Confusing

There are a number of words and phrases that we recommend avoiding, or avoiding in certain contexts and usages. Some are ambiguous or misleading; others presuppose a viewpoint that we hope you disagree with. (See also “Categories of Free and Nonfree Software,” on p. @refx{Categories-pg}{.) (Pay to read more...)

17. The Right to Read: A Dystopian Short Story

From The Road to Tycho, a collection of articles about the antecedents of the Lunarian Revolution, published in Luna City in 2096. For Dan Halbert, the road to Tycho began in college—when Lissa Lenz asked to borrow his computer. Hers had broken down, and unless she could borrow another, she would fail her midterm project. There was no one she dared ask, except Dan. (Pay to read more...)

18. Misinterpreting Copyright—A Series of Errors

Something strange and dangerous is happening in copyright law. Under the US Constitution, copyright exists to benefit users—those who read books, listen to music, watch movies, or run software—not for the sake of publishers or authors. Yet even as people tend increasingly to reject and disobey the copyright restrictions imposed on them “for their own benefit,” the US government is adding more restrictions, and trying to frighten the public into obedience with harsh new penalties. (Pay to read more...)

19. Science Must Push Copyright Aside

It should be a truism that the scientific literature exists to disseminate scientific knowledge, and that scientific journals exist to facilitate the process. It therefore follows that rules for use of the scientific literature should be designed to help achieve that goal. (Pay to read more...)

20. Freedom—or Copyright

Copyright was established in the age of the printing press as an industrial regulation on the business of writing and publishing. The aim was to encourage the publication of a diversity of written works. The means was to require publishers to get the author’s permission to publish recent writings. This enabled authors to get income from publishers, which facilitated and encouraged writing. The general reading public received the benefit of this, while losing little: copyright restricted only publication, not the things an ordinary reader could do. That made copyright arguably a beneficial system for the public, and therefore arguably legitimate. (Pay to read more...)

21. What Is Copyleft?

Copyleft is a general method for making a program (or other work) free, and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well. (Pay to read more...)

22. Copyleft: Pragmatic Idealism

Every decision a person makes stems from the person’s values and goals. People can have many different goals and values; fame, profit, love, survival, fun, and freedom, are just some of the goals that a good person might have. When the goal is a matter of principle, we call that idealism. (Pay to read more...)

23. Anatomy of a Trivial Patent

Programmers are well aware that many of the existing software patents cover laughably obvious ideas. Yet the patent system’s defenders often argue that these ideas are nontrivial, obvious only in hindsight. And it is surprisingly difficult to defeat them in debate. Why is that? (Pay to read more...)

24. Software Patents and Literary Patents

When politicians consider the question of software patents, they are usually voting blind; not being programmers, they don’t understand what software patents really do. They often think patents are similar to copyright law (“except for some details”)—which is not the case. For instance, when I publicly asked Patrick Devedjian, then Minister for Industry in France, how France would vote on the issue of software patents, Devedjian responded with an impassioned defense of copyright law, praising Victor Hugo for his role in the adoption of copyright. (The misleading term “intellectual property” promotes this confusion—one of the reasons it should never be used.) (Pay to read more...)

25. The Danger of Software Patents

I’m most known for starting the free software movement and leading development of the GNU operating system—although most of the people who use the system mistakenly believe it’s Linux and think it was started by somebody else a decade later. But I’m not going to be speaking about any of that today. I’m here to talk about a legal danger to all software developers, distributors, and users: the danger of patents—on computational ideas, computational techniques, an idea for something you can do on a computer. (Pay to read more...)

26. Microsoft’s New Monopoly

European legislators who endorse software patents frequently claim that those wouldn’t affect free software (or “open source”). Microsoft’s lawyers are determined to prove they are mistaken. (Pay to read more...)

27. Introduction to the Licenses

Written by Brett Smith and Richard Stallman. This part contains the text of the latest versions of the primary GNU licenses: the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), and the GNU Free Documentation License (FDL). Though they are legal documents, they belong in this book of essays because they are concrete expressions of the ideals of free software. (Pay to read more...)

28. The GNU General Public License

The GNU General Public License is a free, copyleft license for software and other kinds of works. (Pay to read more...)

29. Why Upgrade to GPLv3

Version 3 of the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) has been released, enabling free software packages to upgrade from GPL version 2. This article explains why upgrading the license is important. (Pay to read more...)

30. The GNU Lesser General Public License

This version of the GNU Lesser General Public License incorporates the terms and conditions of version 3 of the GNU General Public License, supplemented by the additional permissions listed below. (Pay to read more...)

31. GNU Free Documentation License

The purpose of this License is to make a manual, textbook, or other functional and useful document free in the sense of freedom: to assure everyone the effective freedom to copy and redistribute it, with or without modifying it, either commercially or noncommercially. Secondarily, this License preserves for the author and publisher a way to get credit for their work, while not being considered responsible for modifications made by others. (Pay to read more...)

32. Can You Trust Your Computer?

Who should your computer take its orders from? Most people think their computers should obey them, not obey someone else. With a plan they call “trusted computing,” large media corporations (including the movie companies and record companies), together with computer companies such as Microsoft and Intel, are planning to make your computer obey them instead of you. (Microsoft’s version of this scheme is called Palladium.) Proprietary programs have included malicious features before, but this plan would make it universal. (Pay to read more...)

33. Who Does That Server Really Serve?

Digital technology can give you freedom; it can also take your freedom away. The first threat to our control over our computing came from proprietary software : software that the users cannot control because the owner (a company such as Apple or Microsoft) controls it. The owner often takes advantage of this unjust power by inserting malicious features such as spyware, back doors, and Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) (referred to as “Digital Rights Management” in their propaganda). (Pay to read more...)

34. Free but Shackled: The Java Trap

Since this article was first published, on 12 April  2004, Sun has relicensed most of its Java platform reference implementation under the GNU General Public License, and there is now a free development environment for Java. Thus, the Java language as such is no longer a trap. (Pay to read more...)

35. The JavaScript Trap

In the free software community, the idea that nonfree programs mistreat their users is familiar. Some of us refuse entirely to install proprietary software, and many others consider nonfreedom a strike against the program. Many users are aware that this issue applies to the plug-ins that browsers offer to install, since they can be free or nonfree. (Pay to read more...)

36. The X Window System Trap

To copyleft or not to copyleft? That is one of the major controversies in the free software community. The idea of copyleft is that we should fight fire with fire—that we should use copyright to make sure our code stays free. The GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) is one example of a copyleft license. (Pay to read more...)

37. The Problem Is Software Controlled by Its Developer

I fully agree with Jonathan Zittrain’s conclusion that we should not abandon general-purpose computers. Alas, I disagree completely with the path that led him to it. He presents serious security problems as an intolerable crisis, but I’m not convinced. Then he forecasts that users will panic in response and stampede toward restricted computers (which he calls “appliances”), but there is no sign of this happening. (Pay to read more...)

38. We Can Put an End to Word Attachments

Don’t you just hate receiving Word documents in email messages? Word attachments are annoying, but, worse than that, they impede people from switching to free software. Maybe we can stop this practice with a simple collective effort. All we have to do is ask each person who sends us a Word file to reconsider that way of doing things. (Pay to read more...)

39. Thank You, Larry McVoy

For the first time in my life, I want to thank Larry McVoy. He recently eliminated a major weakness of the free software community, by announcing the end of his campaign to entice free software projects to use and promote his nonfree software. Soon, Linux development will no longer use this program, and no longer spread the message that nonfree software is a good thing if it’s convenient. (Pay to read more...)

40. Computing “Progress”: Good and Bad

Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo proposed here (50) that every object in our world have a unique number so that your cell phone could record everything you do—even which cans you picked up while in the supermarket. (Pay to read more...)

41. Avoiding Ruinous Compromises

The free software movement aims for a social change: to make all software free so that all software users are free and can be part of a community of cooperation. Every nonfree program gives its developer unjust power over the users. Our goal is to put an end to that injustice. (Pay to read more...)

42. Overcoming Social Inertia

Almost two decades have passed since the combination of GNU and Linux first made it possible to use a PC in freedom. We have come a long way since then. Now you can even buy a laptop with GNU/Linux preinstalled from more than one hardware vendor—although the systems they ship are not entirely free software. So what holds us back from total success? (Pay to read more...)

43. Freedom or Power?

In the free software movement, we stand for freedom for the users of software. We formulated our views by looking at what freedoms are necessary for a good way of life, and permit useful programs to foster a community of goodwill, cooperation, and collaboration. Our criteria for free software specify the freedoms that a program’s users need so that they can cooperate in a community. (Pay to read more...)

Appendix A: A Note on Software

This section is intended for people who have little or no knowledge of the technical aspects of computer science. It is not necessary to read this section to understand the essays and speeches presented in this book; however, it may be helpful to those readers not familiar with some of the jargon that comes with programming and computer science. (Pay to read more...)

Appendix B: Translations of the Term “Free Software”

The following is a list of recommended unambiguous translations of the term “free software” into various languages: (Pay to read more...)